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The Lord's Prayer


Towards the end of his life, in the early 1960s, Karl Barth changed his mind about the center and heart of Christian ethics. Previously he had written that the key term for his "ethics of reconciliation" was "faithfulness." It is the "one total thing," he wrote, "that is required of man as the Christian life."[1] However, as he began to prepare his discussion of ethics for publication, he shifted the focus of what is the fundamental obligation of humanity. Instead of faithfulness, "invocation" became his controlling theme of the Christian life -- the central duty of ethics. He writes:[2]

We thus understand the command, "Call upon me" (Ps. 50:15), to be the basic meaning of every divine command, and we regard invocation according to this command as the basic meaning of all human obedience. What God permits man, what he expects, wills, and requires of him, is a life of calling upon him. This life of calling upon God will be a person's Christian life: his life in freedom, conversion, faith, gratitude and faithfulness.

Thus, invocation is our response to God's grace. It is a response of joy, gratitude and commitment in the light of God's covenant of grace through Jesus Christ. While faithfulness remains an important aspect of the Christian life, the over-arching principle is better understood as invocation.

Interestingly, Barth intended to place his reflections on "invocation" between his discussion of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism is the "foundation of the Christian life" and the Lord's Supper is its "renewal." The former is the "beginning" of God's history with obedient man, and the latter is the "continuation" of that history through the gracious sustaining of obedient man. Prayer stands as the ground and substance of both baptism and the Lord's Supper. "Invocation" is the central, controlling concept of both and the fundamental characterization of the Christian life.[3] Between the beginning of our Christian life in baptism and the weekly renewal of that life in the Lord's Supper, our life is a life of prayer, of invocation. It is a life of calling on God.

Before Barth, Calvin saw the centrality of prayer as the basis and means of sanctification in the Christian life. At the end of his discussion of justification and sanctification, and prior to his exposition of the doctrine of election, Calvin titles a chapter with these words: "Prayer, which is the chief exercise of faith, and by which we daily receive God's benefits."[4] Prayer is the mode of our Christian existence. It is the means of our sanctification, and all our obedience must involve invocation - a calling upon God. Through prayer we claim the benefits of Christ; we claim the faithfulness of Christ in our place. And through prayer we commit ourselves to following him; we commit ourselves to discipleship. Our faithfulness, our obedience, flows from our invocation through the covenant of grace, which is grounded on the faithfulness of Christ.

Like many before him,[5] including Calvin,[6] Barth took the "Lord's Prayer" as the clearest revelation of what that life of invocation involves. It provides a "framework" for the discussion of the Christian life.[7] Here God gives us "point by point the criterion of a life, action, and work that is determined by prayer" as it is prayed by the one who is "representative of all men before God."[8] Jesus, as God identified with man, as Immanuel, prays this prayer with us. He unites us with himself before God, and gives us the model of approach to God. As a result of this "kindness," as Calvin says, we receive tremendous confidence and consolation in that "we know that we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly -- in short, nothing unacceptable to him -- since we are asking almost in his own words."[9]

It is from this "incomparable text," Barth writes, that "we learn not only that we should pray, but also what we should pray and how we should pray."[10] This prayer, then, reflects a theology of prayer. This prayer, as the center focus of Christian life, reflects what is the essence of theology for the Christian life. This prayer says something about who God is, who we are, what we need and what we are to be. It is, as Bonhoeffer observed, the "quintessence of prayer."[11]

Yet, at the same time, prayer is worship. Unlike the other major symbols of Christianity's catechisms, like the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments, this catechetical symbol is specifically worship; it is liturgical.[12] It is prayer. The Lord's Prayer, therefore, also says something about worship. Here theology and worship intersect. "What takes place in worship," Lochman writes, "is not something solemn but theologically unrewarding and irrelevant."[13] On the contrary, worship must be theologically rooted. Though it transcends conceptual thought, worship cannot take place without the most elemental of theological reflection. The unity of the two, worship and theology, is expressed in the Lord's Prayer. Evagrois summarized the point in this way: "If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian."[14]

"Our Father in heaven."

The boldness of the invocation escapes us because it is so familiar. The Roman Mass attempts to retain the awesome nature of this address when it says audemus dicere, "we boldly say, Our Father." The familiarity, intimacy and fellowship of this address must never be relativized or dissolved into mere symbolism. God invites us to call upon him as "Father."

The invocation addresses both the proximity and the transcendence of God. It signals his relationship with and yet his difference from his creatures. He is "Father," but he is "in heaven." This single phrase embraces both the immanence and transcendence of God, that is, divine relationalability and divine sovereignty. It affirms that the Creator God who sovereignly rules from heaven is willing to enter into familial relationship with his creatures. Jesus Christ as Immanuel, God who became man, is the focal point and the center of that intersection between God's sovereignty and his parental accessibility. He is the mediator between God and man which makes it possible to cry "Abba, Father."

The fatherhood of God might be viewed from two standpoints. One perspective, characteristic of a social interpretation of the Lord's Prayer,[15] is to understand God's fatherhood in terms of creation and the identification of Jesus with humanity in general. Walter Rauschenbusch, for example, sees it as an expression of Jesus' "consciousness of human solidarity" where "we are one with fellow-men in all our needs."[16] Another perspective is to understand God's fatherhood redemptively. The fatherhood of God reflects our oneness with Christ where he shares our humanity and we share his sonship. God is our father because Christ is his son.[17]

Fatherhood in the Sermon on the Mount seems to reflect the redemptive understanding. Kingdom people have God as their father. They are the people who do the will of the Father (7:21), who seek to be perfect as the Father is perfect (5:48), who love their enemies (5:44-45), whose light shines in the darkness (5:16), and who are the peacemakers (5:9). The emphasis on "fatherhood" in the Sermon is redemptive sonship. God is Father because he has acted in Christ to redeem. We are sons because we have claimed Christ's faithfulness as our own.[18] We address God as Father because God has entered into fellowship with us through his Son. To pray "Our Father" is to express God's total involvement in our world for us just as a parent acts for his children.

The invocation, therefore, expresses two things: our prayer is addressed to a "loving parent" and yet he is "beyond the sphere of our control."[19] God is not aloof, but neither is he comprehended. God is present, and he is in control. The presupposition of prayer is fundamentally this: God cares like a parent cares, and he rules like a king. We pray to, we worship, a Father who not only loves, but who is also able to act as the Sovereign God. We pray to our Father in heaven.


"Hallowed be your name;
your kingdom come;
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

These lines are both petitions and confessions. They are petitions in that they call upon God to act. They are confessions in that they signal our allegiance to the cause of God.

The petitions are a cry that the heavenly reality will break into the earthly course of existence. It is a prayer for the consummation and the work of God in the world that leads up to the consummation. It is a yearning for the full manifestation of God's glory before all the earth. It is our prayer that God's name will be sanctified by all the people of the earth; that God's kingdom will be revealed to all the earth; and that God's will will be obeyed in all the earth. We must await the consummation for the fullness of this glory, but we also eagerly seek its revelation in the present. We cry as children to the sovereign God; we ask him to act while we patiently wait.

We pray that the earth may have a "zeal for God's honor."[20] We pray that the name of God will be revered, exalted and worshipped. We pray that God's rule would be fully revealed in our world. We pray for an end to injustice, oppression and tragedy. We pray that the will of God will be fully implemented. We pray for an end to sin, evil and wickedness. The petitions "invoke a vision of God's final triumph over his rebellious creation."[21] It is a vision of faith. A confession that unequivocally affirms "I believe." It is the liturgical cry, "Maranatha, Come, O Lord" (1 Cor. 16:22).

We must resist the tendency to view these petitions as "a veiled form of moral instruction" or a "disguised moral injunction."[22] They fundamentally appeal for God to act. The focus is on the gracious activity of God rather than on human works. He must sanctify his name; he must unveil the kingdom; he must accomplish his will on earth. It is our petition that God act so that we can know and experience the fullness of his presence, his kingdom and his will. The consummation is not a "grandiose project of ours;" it is "the sovereign action of God to restore his creation finally to his rule."[23]

However, the petitions are an identification of our will with God's will. It is our investment in the cause of God. It is our declaration that God's designs, his purposes, and his goals are our own. The prayer presupposes that the one who prays knows what the kingdom entails, what the will of God is, and is committed to its in-breaking. It is the submission of our desires and priorities to that of God's. The heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, becomes for us a "paradigm for our earthly cities."[24]

While the in-breaking of the heavenly realm is not the result of our own ideals or moral powers, we are the instruments of God's actions in this present evil age. The kingdom breaks into the world through the salt and light of God's people. As the Sermon on the Mount reflects, the name of the Father is glorified through their good works (5:16); they reflect the righteousness of the Father's kingdom (5:20); and they do the will of Father (7:21). Our vertical invocation of God in this prayer for God's healing of creation, his "normalizing of human existence," implies a horizontal attitude of human obedience to the will of God. It calls upon us to honor God, seek his kingdom and obey his will.[25] Our vertical prayer implies our horizontal commitment to be God's instruments in this world.


"Give us this day our daily bread;
"Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors;
"And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One."

These petitions should not be disconnected from the previous ones. While the first three petitions are our investment, our allegiance, to the cause of God, the final three petitions reflect God's commitment, even allegiance in Jesus Christ, to our cause, our needs. "Because in Jesus Christ God has united our cause (the major and the minor problems of our life) to his cause, we are permitted, nay commanded, to appeal now with simplicity on our behalf."[26] God's cause is united to our cause, and our cause is united to his in Jesus Christ. The first three petitions proclaim our identification with God's purposes. The final three petitions presuppose God's identification with our needs. It is Jesus who links God and man; God's purposes and man's needs. We boldly approach God about our needs only because God has drawn us to himself in Jesus Christ.

As we approach these final petitions, it is important to remember the priority of the first three. Rauschenbusch appropriately notes that:[27]

the desire for the Kingdom of God precedes and outranks everything else in religion, and forms the tacit presupposition of all our wishes for ourselves. In fact, no one has a clear right to ask for bread for his body or strength for his soul, unless he has identified his will with this all-embracing purpose of God, and intends to use the vitality of body and soul in the attainment of that end.

This is consonant with the saying of Jesus in Matthew 6:33: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (the first three petitions) "and all these things will be added to you" (the final three petitions). The fundamental goal of man is not self-exaltation, or self-promotion, but the glory of God. "What is the chief end of man?" asks the Westminster Shorter Catechism in its first question. Answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." Prayer first glorifies God and then seeks God's faithfulness to his witness to us in Christ. In his faithfulness, God responds to our needs.

Our needs, as expressed by the final three petitions, are bread, forgiveness and deliverance. These needs, if they are not met, are hindrances to our commitment to the cause of God. The need for bread, the need for food, shelter and clothing, creates worry and uncertainty in our hearts. It threatens to overpower our trust in God and undermine our confidence in his care. "O you of little faith," Jesus says, "your heavenly Father knows that you need them" (Mt 6:30,32). The need for forgiveness, the need for the assurance of God's grace, creates a sense of guilt that is debilitating and crippling to our best efforts for happiness. The need for deliverance, the need for spiritual power in overcoming Satan's advances, creates a sense of helplessness and futility that undermines our resolve and commitment to God's cause.

The final three petitions, then, are a prayer of defense. It is a cry for help. It expresses our utter dependence upon God. It is a hurting and helpless child's appeal to his Father. We are too fragile to defeat Satan; too impotent to redeem ourselves or even to feed ourselves. Our petition is for God to act to remove these potential barriers to our commitment. Prayer, therefore, addresses God about human needs, and this exemplifies the place of prayer. "Its context is our need or necessity before God."[28]

Yet, this prayer concerning our needs is not like the prayers of the pagans who rant and rave in order to insure that they will be heard. We do not have to manipulate our God into caring about us. He does not have to be badgered into meeting our needs. On the contrary, our Father knows what we need before we ask him (Mt 6:8). Just as the Father loves his creation, and feeds his birds and clothes his lilies, so the children of the Father are confident about his care for them and are assured that the Father will feed and clothe them (Mt. 6:25-32). We know that God will give good gifts to those who ask him (Mt 7:11).

The presupposition of these final petitions is the involvement of God in our present world. It assumes that God does give food to the needy. It assumes that God moves to forgive. It assumes that God delivers his children from the Tempter. When we ask, God responds (Mt. 7:7-8). When God responds, God acts in this world to answer our prayer. He feeds his children just as he feeds the birds of the air (Mt 6:26). He forgives his children just as he teaches us to forgive others (Mt 6:14-15). He delivers us from the present evil of the day (Mt 6:34). Prayer assumes the sustaining and providential work of God in his world.

More than that, it assumes an intimacy with the lives of his children. God is deeply aware of and sensitive to our spiritual struggles. He is able to keep us from being overpowered by evil; he can deliver us from the Evil One himself. In language perhaps based upon the Lord's Prayer, 2 Peter 2:9 assures us that God knows how to deliver the godly from trials. We have the confidence that God knows our limitations (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13) and that he is both willing and able to supply us with the power and strength we need to overcome the Evil One.

We need food to sustain our bodily existence; we need forgiveness to remain in fellowship with God; and we need power to overcome the One who is intent on defeating us. The Lord's Prayer recognizes these needs; it commands that we petition God for them; and it assumes the gracious attitude of a heavenly Father who is both willing and able to supply them.


In 1952 Albert Einstein was asked a question by a Princeton doctoral student that perhaps many of you have thought about from time to time. He asked: "What is left in the world for original dissertation research?" Einstein's response is insightful. He said, "Find out about prayer! Somebody must find out about prayer."[29]

The secularist in our post-modern and post-Christian society struggles with the concept of prayer, and in this regard, many in our congregations have become secularists. Prayer for many is simply a means of self-actualization. It is self-induced therapy; a psychological couch which emboldens us to seek change in the world. Secularized prayer is simply a method of self-motivation and self-comfort. It does not, as Coleman writes, "intend to move [God] to intervene or to change [an] external circumstance. The [secularist] prays for justice, healing, comfort, peace, thinking that these things will be accomplished if he does them."[30] Secularized prayer looks to the human achiever rather than the divine giver; it redeems by works rather than grace.

The Lord's Prayer is rooted in the grace of a heavenly Father, and in the sovereign power of that heavenly Father.[31] Christian prayer, as Lochman writes, "is more than an instrument and expression of the pious (or, in secular terms, the meditative) self-understanding."[32] It is an expression of the life of faith, "the chief exercise of faith," as Calvin put it. It is trusting in the redeeming love and sovereign power of the heavenly Father who has made our cause his cause. This trust is objectively expressed in baptism and the Lord' Supper. There we are assured and we faithfully believe in the reality of God's redemptive love for us in Jesus Christ.

The Lord's Prayer expresses our yearning for the coming of God and our need for God's involvement in our life in the here and now. As we see the pain and the suffering, the hurt and the sin of the world around us, we groan for the consummation of God's kingdom when all pain and sorrow will be abolished. It is a cry of trust, "I believe." As we see our own sinful and impotent souls, we groan for the healing and forgiving power of God's love in our hearts. We sense within ourselves the struggle with the flesh and the worry of materialism. It is a cry of weakness, "Help my unbelief." In the Lord's Prayer, we commit ourselves to God's cause, to his kingdom and his righteousness, knowing that he has already committed himself to our cause in Jesus Christ. The Lord's Prayer, therefore, affirms God as our gracious Father and confesses our utter dependence upon him as his children so that we receive all things as from his hand.[33]

The Lord's Prayer, then, underlines the truth of that beautiful refrain of one of our old hymns, "Its me, Its me, Its me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."

In an almost anticlimactic way, I want to link theology and worship with praxis by offering two suggestions. Both of these suggestions are grounded in Jesus' presentation of this prayer as a model for his disciples. The first suggestion is to center our personal, private prayers around this controlling model. Our own prayers can self-consciously follow this pattern of God's glory and human needs. Invested with theological maturity, the Lord's Prayer has a depth that will satisfy all our prayer needs. Yet, in its simplicity, it is available to all believers of whatever age or maturity.

My second suggestion is to incorporate this prayer into the public life of the church. The prayer is liturgical in nature. It can be used to focus our worship and the corporate prayers of the church. Its use in responsive readings or unison prayer can yield both a sense of corporate solidarity and transcendence in worship that is badly needed in our increasingly secularized assemblies.

As a final word, let me leave you with Simone Weil's conclusion to her reflections on the Lord's Prayer.[34] It is a word that I have found true in my own personal devotions using the Lord's Prayer.

The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.


[1] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Church Dogmatics IV/4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 285.

[2] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981. The significance of this adjustment by Barth is studied by Donald K. McKim, "Karl Barth on the Lord's Prayer," Center Journal 2 (1982), 81-99.

[3] Ibid., pp. 45-46.

[4] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC 21, 2 vols, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.20/II:850. See Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, Ltd., 1959), pp. 271-295.

[5] Tertullian called it an "abridgement of the entire Gospel" ("On Prayer," Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetical Works, FOTC, 40, trans. by R. Arbesmann, E. J. Daly, and E. A. Quain [New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959], 1.6/159); Origen, On Prayer, ACW, 19, trans. by J. J. O'Meara (New York: Newman Press, 1954); Cyprian, On the Lord's Prayer, ACW, 36, trans. by R. J. Deferrari (New York: Newman Press, 1958); Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord's Prayer, ACW, 18, trans. by H. C. Graef (New York: Newman Press, 1954); Augustine, The Lord's Sermon on the Mount, ACW, 5, trans. by J. J. Jepson (New York: Newman Press, 1948); and Maximus Confessor, "Commentary on Our Father," Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, CWS (New York: Paulist, 1985); Thomas Aquinas, "Exposition of the Lord's Prayer," The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas, trans. by J. B. Collins (New York: Wagner); Martin Luther's "Small Catechism" and "Large Catechism," The Book of Concord, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959); John Calvin, "The Catechism of the Church of Geneva," Calvin: Theological Treatises, trans. by J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954); and Balthasar Hubmaier, "A Brief "Our Father," Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989); and for an oral exposition of the Lord's Prayer among a non-literate populace by an illiterate minister, see Russel Snyder-Penner, "Hans Nadler's Oral Exposition of the Lord's Prayer," Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (1991), 393-406.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.34-49/II:897-917. See also his devotional approach to the Lord's Prayer in The Piety of John Calvin, trans. and edited by Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), pp. 100-111.

[7] Barth, Christian Life, p. 45.

[8] Ibid, p. 44.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.34/II:897.

[10] Barth, Christian Life, p. 44. Barth calls the Lord's Prayer our "apprenticeship in true prayer" (Prayer According to the Catechisms of the Reformation, trans. by Sara F. Terrien [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952], p. 25).

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. by R. H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 148.

[12] The evidence of its liturgical use in the early church is scanty, but significant. By the mid-fourth century, it is explicitly part of the liturgy of the Palestinian church; cf. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, FOTC, 61, trans. by L. P. McCauley (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1963), pp. 170-179. However, the Didache (Early Christian Fathers, LCC, 1 [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953], pp. 171-179) evidences its use in the liturgy of the church by placing it (8:2-3) between baptism (7:1-4) and the Lord's Supper (9:1-5), and its place in Matthew and Luke indicate a role in the teaching of church if not its Liturgy. T. W. Manson, "The Lord's Prayer," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 38 (1956), 99-113, 436-448 gives a history of the liturgical use of the prayer.

[13] Jan Milic Lochman, The Lord's Prayer, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 2.

[14] Evagrois, On Prayer, 60, as quoted by Berthold in Maximus Confessor, p. 120, n.13.

[15] Cf. Donald W. Shriver, Jr., "The Prayer that Spans the World. An Exposition: Social Ethics and the Lord's Prayer," Interpretation 21 (1967), 274-288.

[16] Walter Rauscenbusch, Prayers of the Social Awakening (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1909), pp. 17-18.

[17] So Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.36/II:899: "He, while he is the true Son, has of himself been given us as a brother that what he has of his own nature may become ours by benefit of adoption if we embrace this great blessing with sure faith."

[18] This does not deny that the "fatherhood" of God as creator or the humanity of Christ in his self-identification with us does not have social implications. Certainly Matthew 25 speaks to this dimension. However, I do not think this is the point of the invocation in the Lord's Prayer.

[19] Richard J. Dillon, "On the Christian Obedience of Prayer (Matthew 6:5-13)," Worship 59 (1985), 420. I have taken the below designation of the "You-petitions" as "heavenly transcendence" and the designation of the "We-petitions" as "fatherly proximity" from Dillon who believes that "the alternation of theological motifs, heavenly transcendence and fatherly proximity, stand out plainly in the two sections of the Lord's Prayer" (p. 421).

[20] Barth's description of the first petition, Christian Life, p. 111. Cf. also Lochman, p. 37.

[21] Dillon, p. 421.

[22] Krister Stendahl, "Your Kingdom Come," Cross Currents 32 (1982), 260, 262.

[23] Dillon, p. 421.

[24] Lochman, p. 82.

[25] Barth, The Christian Life, p. 212.

[26] Barth, Prayer, pp. 39.

[27] Rauschenbusch, p. 19.

[28] Lochman, p. 5.

[29] As told by J. Harold Ellens, "Communication Theory and Petitionary Prayer," Journal of Pastoral Theology 5 (1977), 48.

[30] Richard J. Coleman, Issues of Theological Conflict: Evangelicals and Liberals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 195.

[31] This perspective is emphasized by Philip B. Harner, "Matthew 6:5-15," Interpretation 41 (1987), 173-178.

[32] Lochman, p. 9.

[33] This summary is based on the wording of Ellens, p. 53.

[34] Weil, Waiting for God, trans. by Emma Craufurd (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1951), p. 226.

This paper was originally read at Abilene Christian University, Bible Forum, in February 1992.


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